Friday, July 21, 2006

Nerds and Geeks

So the other day I took my computer to Best Buy’s famed “Geek Squad” for repair. Leave aside the fact that they didn’t manage to repair it (apparently there was a motherboard problem; I’ve got a shiny new laptop being shipped to me now). They were a collection of nice, normal-looking young men and women. Their advertisement posters, however, were another story. In them, characters in horrible glasses, hiked up black polyester pants and white socks promised to fix your computer, rain or shine, “Sci-fi convention in town or not.”

Now, I suppose that Best Buy’s ad designers are using “geek” in an affectionate way, These are their colleagues, after all. Referring to these very normal-looking individuals as geeks is likely just a way to make the public think they’re competent when it comes to fixing computers.

Indeed, broadly, there seems to be a move by young people to reclaim words like “nerd” and “geek” and use them positively. I’ve been reading a number of articles recently on “nerd camp.” For three of my early teenage summers, I attended the Center for Talent Development’s summer camps at Northwestern University, studying geometry, computers and literature with gifted kids from all over the Midwest.
We never called it nerd camp. But now kids do so freely, telling reporters that’s what they call similar camps at Duke, Johns Hopkins and other universities.

When people reclaim words, they take some of the sting out of them. That’s a good thing. But I can’t help thinking that when gifted young people themselves use such words frequently, other people feel they’ve got a license to do so, too. As things tend to go, these names will then be aimed at younger gifted kids, particularly ones who haven’t made their peace with the whole thing yet. So while I grant that the Geek Squad is a great brand name, I wish they and the nerd-camp attendees would have come up with another way to talk about themselves.


Quiltsrwarm said...

I come at this from an interesting perspective. I am a geek and proud of it! :) I was on board the geek flagship from the late '80s, when the Internet was the way for eggheads to communicate when they didn't want to do it in the usual way. Before Windows and IE became the primary base of operations for the world. When Basic and Fortran were the languages to learn (just a step above punch cards, if you are wondering).

I've personally witnessed the evolution of the Internet and how computers and the Internet have invaded our lives. I've seen what life was before we could connect so personally and how tough it was to use new technologies but not be able to shout about it for fear of ridicule. Now, those of us in IT, who have worked night and day to make these systems operate as well as they do, are the Queens and Kings of industry. Thus, the words, "geek" and "nerd" have become almost royal.

While I was at college, I worked in a computer lab for writers -- a very unique environment, but those of us who staffed it (nearly all volunteers) proudly called ourselves geeks, though we stopped short of nerds -- I don't know why. Maybe "nerd" isn't as sexy as "geek" when spoken outloud...

I never considered "geek" to be a bad word, and neither did any of my geek friends. I think those who didn't (and still don't) understand the geek culture find some offense in the words "geek" and "nerd" -- why? I don't know. We wear the lables with pride!

Laura Vanderkam said...

Hi Lisa- I'm glad you're a proud "geek." I guess I just never liked the words. Of course, my technical savvy leads much to be desired, which may remove me from "geek" consideration. Still trying to figure out how to get all my old files off my old laptop to the new... wiped out when stuff was reinstalled of course... but it turns out my backup service didn't back anything up from before I purchased the service. Nice, huh?
Anyway, I'm able to post comments again, so I'll go back through and answer people's posts...